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States still lagging when it comes to punishing bad doctors

I had a conversation with a reporter this afternoon who remarked that the news release we put out today about doctor discipline sounded a lot like the one we put out last year, or the year before. Part of that is true: states, overall, are still doing a lousy job disciplining bad doctors. In fact, two of the largest states, California and Florida, are doing so bad that they’ve slipped into the bottom 10 states when it comes to keeping the public safe from incompetent, unscrupulous or unqualified physicians.

But as a D.C. resident, there is one positive change in there that should be noted: the nation’s capital is doing a much better job of holding doctors accountable than it once did. In the rankings Public Citizen released for 2003, D.C. ranked 42 out of 51. The 2008 rankings have D.C. ranked 23, an impressive move up and one that can be attributed directly to the public pressure brought by public interest advocates, such as Public Citizen, and the Washington Post.

The Post’s Cheryl W. Thompson did a three-part series back in April of 2005 that uncovered just how pitiful the District was when it came to disciplining bad doctors. Here’s what Thompson found in her investigation:

• Twenty-six physicians with substance-abuse problems known to the board have not been disciplined, despite the fact that six lost their licenses in other states. In one instance, the board gave a license to a doctor knowing that he had “several alcohol-related arrests.”

• Fourteen physicians with D.C. licenses went unpunished by the board although they were disciplined in Maryland and Virginia for criminal convictions, sexual misconduct or questionable medical care. Five have medical practices in the District, and seven have staff privileges at city hospitals.

• The board received roughly 318 complaints against physicians between 1999 and 2004 for allegations ranging from negligent medical care to sexual assault, but only four of the physicians were disciplined.

• The medical board voted to discipline more than a dozen doctors for various infractions but did not follow through on its decision.

Thompson’s series, which quoted Public Citizen’s Dr. Sidney Wolfe, sparked outrage but, more importantly, it sparked change. Dr. Wolfe testified about D.C.’s shortcomings and lack of full-time staff in November 2005 before the D.C. Council. (His .pdf testimony is here).

Since the Post story and the hearing, the D.C. medical board has beefed up its staff and done a much better job of taking action against bad doctors.

So, yeah, the news from Public Citizen about doctor discipline sounds a little familiar. But just take a look at that list and you can see that there are plenty of states on there that need to do what D.C. did when confronted with the facts.